Hardware Guide - Ep I : Motherboards

In today's world, no matter your profession and social status, you have to interact with computers at work or at home, and whether you are PE teacher or a sculptor, knowing a thing or two about PCs can be highly beneficial. This is the first article in an educational series that will teach you everything you need to know about computer architecture as a user. So, in case you're looking to buy a new PC, change some of its parts or simply be informed about what's going on inside your computer, you've clicked on the right link.

The first topic we will focus on is the motherboard because this is basically the foundation of your PC. In simple terms, the motherboard is the main part of your computer. It's a circuit board with a bunch of slots to which you connect every other hardware part and peripherals (keyboard, mouse, modem, monitor, etc) that goes into your PC.

If you've ever tried to purchase a motherboard, you know that it comes with a whole list of technical specs, which mostly look like random letters and numbers thrown in together with a few semi-familiar terms. I will try to explain in layman's terms what these specifications actually mean:

  • Intel / AMD motherboard - Intel and AMD are the 2 main types of processors. In a future article we will talk about CPUs, and I will tell you what the difference between those is, but this specification shows the type of CPU the respective motherboard was built for.
  • CPU socket - this designates the shape of the connector for the CPU. You don't have to pay too much attention to the series of characters that follows this spec, just make sure that your processor has the same socket. (ex: LGA 1150)
  • Chipset - tells you the family of processors that the motherboard is designed to interface with. If you're not an expert, it's not very important as you already have this data from the previous details.
  • Memory - is the category where you find out the physical amount of RAM (how many RAM cards) you can insert simultaneously (RAM Slots), the type of RAM supported and their frequency. It will probably be DDR3 and / or DDR4 as DDR2, DDR1 and SD-RAM are obsolete. The other available data includes the maximum logical amount of RAM memory you can have (how many GB) and the way your RAM cards work best (single channel, dual channel, triple channel or quad channel)
  • Storage devices will tell you what types of hard-disks you can connect (ATA, SATA, SATA Express, etc.), how many HDDs you can plug-in simultaneously and the maximum hard-disk writing speed supported (a number measured in GB/sec). Some motherboards also offer support (have dedicated slots) for memory cards (kind of like the ones you use in your phone). Additionally, you might see something called SATA RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks for Serial-ATA), which means that this motherboard will make your SATA hard-disks work slightly faster than they would on a regular one.
  • Expansion slots is a wide category which tells you how many components with PCI and PCI Express sockets you can connect to your motherboard. PCI parts include video cards, network cards, modems, audio cards, TV tuners, etc, while PCI Express are sockets most often used for video cards and TV tuners. You will also find information about the types of PCI Express cards supported (PCI E 3.0 x 16, PCI E 2.0 x 16, etc.).
  • Features is a special category because every brand comes up with a new (company-specific) name every time they build something slightly better. The information that you will find there isn't very important, but if you are really curious,  Googling the name will most likely give you a clear idea about what it is.
  • The rest of specifications can usually tell you about the kind of cables the motherboard comes with and the other (rear panel) available slots. They are pretty standard, so you don't even need to pay attention to most of them. The most important ones are the number of USB ports available (how many USB devices you can connect), the HDMI, VGA and DVI availability, which tells you the type of connector your monitor needs and, in case you still use a mouse or keyboard with a round-shaped connector, the existence of PS/2 port.

Motherboard SchematicMotherboard Schematic

Buying or replacing a motherboard can be very tricky because you have to be certain that it offers supports for all your other components. Furthermore, you have to make sure that its dimensions (width and length) fit the case. There are a few extra tricks that you pick up along the way, and I want to share the most important ones with you.

  1. Size matters: nowadays, manufacturers have the tendency of creating smaller and smaller motherboards. They may look cute and fit in any case, but space can quickly become an issue. Especially if you are a gamer, your graphics card will be huge and after installing it, you will have no more room move around and insert or remove other components. Furthermore, there are people who want to install two graphical cards and that can really be a problem as they may simply not fit.
  2. Cables are a necessary nuisance: I'm pretty sure that a regular person has at least 10 cables in the relatively small space that his or her computer case has to offer. If these cables get entangled, inserting and especially removing hardware components can truly become a nightmare. Furthermore, some cables may get caught and damaged in your coolers. To avoid or at least manage these problems you should look for a motherboard that leaves a bit of space between itself and the side of the case, so that you can get a few cables behind (or under) the motherboard).
  3. Trusted brands: There are several names which have proven themselves reliable over the years. For regular usage, I especially like ASUS and MSI, but if we are talking about a highly-overclocked system, ASUS, GIGABYTE and ASROCK are some of the best choices available.

What you really need to remember is that buying a new motherboard takes a bit of planning. Make sure the other components that you intend to buy or already have will be compatible with the new motherboard and that you have enough physical room to install them. You should also consider the fact that, in the future, you might want to upgrade your hardware, so your motherboard should offer support for components which, at the moment, are very new and expensive.

If I missed something, or in case you have a question, please post it in the comments section, and I will try to answer as many as I can in the final article of the series.

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